SACRAMENTO, Calif. - For at least a millennium and a half, the Makah Tribe
in Washington state harvested whales from the nearby Pacific Ocean on the
northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. In the 1920s they voluntarily
gave up this practice and in recent years have sought to revive it.
To further their efforts, the tribe has requested from the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) a waiver of the Marine Mammals
Protection Act that would allow the tribe a limited harvest of gray whales.
"It's in our history and culture," said Makah tribal councilman Ben Johnson
Johnson also points out that it's in the tribe's treaty rights. In 1855 the
tribe signed the Treaty of Neah Bay, named after the body of water on whose
shores the tribe's landholdings sit, that guaranteed the tribe the right to
The tribe eventually dropped the practice in the 1920s because of declining
Whale hunts in the 19th century have become legendary, immortalized in such
literary works as Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." Though certain coastal
cultures worldwide have practiced whaling for thousands of years, increases
in population and technology decimated whale populations worldwide.
Despite the still-low numbers of some whale species, one that has staged a
comeback is the gray whale. Brian Gorman, who works at NOAA's Seattle
offices, said current estimates for gray whales are somewhere between
17,000 and 23,000 - about the same number as before the great hunts of the
The tribe wanted to harvest gray whales again when the whales were removed
from the Endangered Species list in 1994. The International Whaling
Commission in 1997 granted the tribe permission to harvest up to 20 gray
whales over a five-year period, with five being the maximum number allowed
in a single year. The Commission extended that right in 2002.
Immediately after harvesting their first whale since the 1920s in 1999, the
tribe was stopped due to a lawsuit filed by several groups seeking to
In 2000, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stopped the tribe from harvesting
whales, claiming that NOAA had not followed proper environmental procedures
before going to the International Whaling Commission. The court said the
tribe would have to file for the waiver before it would be allowed to
continue the hunt.
Gorman and Johnson expect the hunt to cause controversy and anticipate
One group filing an amicus brief against the tribe in the 2000 lawsuit is
the Cetacean Society International. Cetacean is derived from the Latin word
Bill Rossiter, president of the Society, said that his group's main problem
with allowing the Makah to re-start the whale hunt is that times have
changed and the Makah no longer depend on whales for survival. He admits
that the Makah have "gotten a raw deal" from the government and said that
while his group wants to help the tribe, they do not believe whaling is the
"[The Cetacean Society International's] position is that we are for the
Makah, and helping the tribe to grow culturally and economically, but when
it comes to whaling we have to take a wider worldview and stand in
opposition to those efforts," said Rossiter.
Rossiter maintained that Makah society has adjusted to the modern age; and
that given the years in which the tribe survived without whaling, the tribe
no longer depends upon the practice for everyday survival.
Contrasting the Makah with Alaska's Inuit people, Rossiter points to the
latter's allowable harvest of bullhead whales. He said that in general, the
Inuit still harvest bullheads for food and subsistence and that they
largely use traditional methods of hunting; thus, his organization does not
oppose their hunts.
In contrast, he said that the Makah plan to use motorized boats with
.50-caliber rifles, which to him does not constitute a traditional way of
Another criterion Rossiter said his group uses to deter-' mine whether or
not to support aboriginal hunting rights is culture. Rossiter claims that
the Makah could "do everything up to right before they kill the whale and
still fulfill their cultural requirements."
Additionally, Rossiter is concerned that some of the whales harvested will
be juvenile whales that do not migrate, but summer in the Straits of Juan
de Fuca, the opening of water that leads to the Puget Sound just north of
The tribe counters that they will only harvest oceangoing whales during
migration times. They point to the tribe's long history and cultural
affiliation with whaling and point out that some elders can still remember
the traditional whale hunts, thus establishing a continuity. The Makah Web
site lists some of the traditional uses of whales by the tribe: "Whales
gave oil, meat, bone, sinew and gut for storage containers: useful
products, though gained at a high cost in time and goods."
Gorman said the process for the waiver might take two years, if not more,
before a decision is reached.